Esports must do Right by Female Athletes

on May 23, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Earlier this year, I was sitting at a Dell press conference at CES when Frank Azor, one of the co-founders of Alienware now responsible for the gaming and XPS business at Dell, announced the collaboration with teamliquid to build the first two Alienware training facilities for esports. I was not ashamed to admit on Twitter that I had no idea gaming had grown up so much as to become comparable to an Olympic sport.

I had witnessed the rise of game streaming through my own kid who spends as much time watching people play Minecraft than she does playing. But I had no idea that many gamers in the world train that way and earn a living. I am pretty sure she does not know either!

While esports has been around for some decades, it has really taken a global role over the past ten years and over the past couple it has started to reflect more and more traditional sports with significant investments, and broadcasting interest from channels such as ESPN. John Lasker, ESPN’s VP of programming, compared opening up to including esports to opening up to add poker, something that nobody questions today but that did not get covered without some initial skepticism.

There is still a lot of work to be done to change the mass market perception of what esports athletes look like and why one should think about them in terms of a sportsperson with unique capabilities rather than a kid sitting in front of a PC in a bedroom eating lousy food and drinking soda. Esports is becoming so big that it will be an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China. The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced a partnership with Alisports, the sports arm of Chinese online retail giant Alibaba, to introduce esports as a demonstration sport at next year’s games in Indonesia, with full-fledged inclusion in the official sporting program at the Hangzhou Games in 2022. The OCA said the decision reflects “the rapid development and popularity of this new form of sports participation among the youth.”

The eSports Audience and Athletes

According to a recent GWI report, one in three esports fans are aged between 20 and 25. Overall esports fans are now representing around 15% of internet users, and 71% of them are male. This reflects quite well the pro-gamers crowd. Yet, gaming overall has not been so male-dominated for quite some time. Already in 2012, a study by the Entertainment Software Association showed that gamers were split 53% male and 47% female.

So why are we not seeing more female pro-gamers? The answer is pretty straightforward: culture and gatekeeping. Female gamers are often made to feel they do not belong that they do not have the skills. I am sure some of you will quickly run a list of heroines like Cortana, Lara Croft, Sonya Blade but as you continue and you pay attention to their outfits you quickly spot one of the problems: objectification.
As pro-gaming added streaming as a big part of the experience as well as a revenue opportunity, being a pro gamer got even harder for women as they are often harassed. To stay in the game, many female players would “hide” themselves by avoiding voice chat and cut themselves out of the streaming revenue opportunity which then in turns limits their exposure to growing their followers and showcasing their skills. It is a vicious circle that is hard to break.

A Big Business for Some

Newzoo is estimating Global esports revenues to reach $905.6 million in 2018, an increase of more than $250 million compared to 2017. North America will generate the most revenues, contributing 38% of the global. Sponsorship is the highest grossing eSports revenue stream worldwide, contributing $359.4 million in 2018 compared to $234.6 million in 2017.

This fantastic growth does not seem to benefit all, however. Esports like many traditional sports has a pay gap problem. Earlier in the year, the winners of China’s Lady Star League took home roughly $22,000, while, this year’s LoL spring split champs took home $100,000, second place, $50,000, third place, $30,000, and fourth place, $20,000.

In traditional sports, we have some great examples like Wimbledon where the organizers have offered equal price-money for over ten years now. The Australia Open followed suit. Looking at tennis as a whole, however, the gap still, and the same is true for soccer, golf, and cricket. For some, the issue is deeply rooted in the rules of the game that favor men. Think about advertising which is where much of the money is coming from. Female esports chases after the same sponsors and TV channels as male sports, but because of the male-biased demographic on those TV channels, they do not reach similar viewing figures to those of male sports. More recently sponsors have started to realize that they can reach a pretty good demographic of women for a relatively low price and that those women are more often than not decision makers on many household purchases.

This week, Epic Games announced they would inject $100 million into Fortnite esports competition for the 2018-2019 season. The money, according to a company blog, will fund prize pools for Fortnite competitors in a more inclusive way that focuses on the joy of playing and watching the game and will not be limited to the top players only.

While no details have been shared, I am really hoping that we will see some of the money go to support female-only tournaments with prices that match what we see in the male tournaments. Female-only tournaments will not only give access to money but, equally important; they will provide a safe space for female athletes to compete without feeling isolated. By all means, I do not expect Epic Games to be a silver bullet for all that is wrong with the lack of female empowerment in esports but wouldn’t it be good if the joy of playing they talked about could involve some effort in making female athletes more welcome?

I saw some people pointing to the fact that girls should be encouraged to game, they should be included. In a way, they are making it sound like esports has a pipeline issue as tech does. Yet, when I look at my daughter’s 4th-grade class, I see boys and girls gaming together and boys acknowledging the skills of their top player who happens to be a girl. The same can be said about soccer or basketball. So it seems to me that for once, we do not have a pipeline issue, not until the kids grow up and they are told they cannot play together!